After years of tumult, it looked like the New York Knicks were going to finally have a stable season, with a handpicked, veteran roster. Unfortunately, Amar'e Stoudemire's creaky knees put the kibosh on that plan.
Over the summer, the Knicks were one of the more active teams in the leauge, but still returned 62 percent of their minutes from 2011-12. However, that number is now a bit misleading with Stoudemire possibly out until January. His absence could prove to be a double-edged sword.
The "good" edge is this: Knicks coach Mike Woodson now has a chance to stumble upon the best way to deploy his franchise player, Carmelo Anthony. Without Stoudemire, the Knicks are severely lacking at the four position. As Tom Haberstroh points out today, the Knicks have been very good with Carmelo Anthony playing the de facto power forward spot. While Anthony has bristled at the notion in the past, Woodson can point to the way he used Josh Smith in Atlanta as an example of how the switch isn't that big of a deal.
Smith flips between frontcourt spots for the Hawks on a regular basis, depending on the matchups created by any given opponent. Like Anthony, Smith's game is plagued by an overabundance of midrange jumpers, but sliding him down to the block helps save him from himself, so to speak. Woodson should consider using Anthony in a similar fashion.
It's just a matter of perception anyway. The fact of the matter is that the best players on the floor are going to migrate to the spaces in which they feel most comfortable. It's up to the coaches to fit the pieces around him. In other words, Anthony's position doesn't really matter much as the position of the other players Woodson puts on the floor around him.
So let's sit in Woodson's chair for a moment, and consider what he might do in both the short and the near-term.
Even if Stoudemire's absence means that Woodson has to play small more than he would like, he should be able to find workable lineups given the perimeter options at his disposal. Last season, when Jeremy Lin was on hand, one of the Knicks' most successful lineups included Anthony at four with three shooters in Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields. None of those presumed floor-spacers shot the ball very well last season, but the lineup worked anyway because of defense and the position it put Anthony in. According to BasketballValue.com, that lineup outscored opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions over 150 minutes.
We don't have a play-by-play breakdown, but perhaps one reason the grouping worked so well is that with Anthony playing a big position, it gave Woodson the option of using him as the roll man in pick-and-rolls with Davis. According to mySynergySports.com, Anthony was the finisher on pick-and-rolls on 22 plays last season, not enough to qualify for the leaderboard. However, his 1.14 points per play on those sets would have placed him in the top 25 of the league had he qualified. The season before, Anthony averaged 1.19 points on 37 plays as a pick-and-roll finisher.
It's easy to understand why Anthony would be good on those plays, with his combination of size, strength and athleticism. Using him that way also gets him moving towards the basket, which puyts him into position to draw contact and has the added benefit of keeping him from launching a long 2-point jumper. It's one example of how playing the new position helps save Anthony from himself, and should be weapon Woodson uses more often.
You may note that the configuration pairs a couple of solid wing defenders in Shumpert and Fields, which may be informative. Tyson Chandler played center in that lineup, and luckily he's still around to anchor the New York defense. Anthony has the size to combat most power forwards, especially given the trend towards small lineups across the league. In fact, you can almost hide Anthony on defense by playing him at four, unless he's going against a top post scorer like Pau Gasol, which won't be often. So if point guard Ray Felton is pressuring the ball and initiating the offense, and you can get a pair of 3/D (3-point shooting and defense) types to play the wing, you've got a promising lineup on both ends of the floor.
Unfortunately, that's not exactly how the Knicks' roster is set up. New York's best wing defender is probably Ronnie Brewer, especially with Shumpert still rehabbing his knee injury. Brewer is a fine player and an excellent value, but he's not a deep-shooting threat. His herky-jerky, elbows-out shooting motion will always prevent him from consistently knocking down jumpers and limits his range. (The unorthodox form is a result of a broken arm Brewer suffered in his youth.) Nevertheless, the Knicks are short on athletes on the wing, and if you play Anthony at four, you almost have to put Brewer on the floor.
Jason Kidd has morphed into a 3/D player of sorts, with elite catch-and-shoot ability from the arc. He's also a solid defender of two-guards, with decent size and excellent strength to go with his high on-court IQ. He doesn't have the mobility to defend elite athletes any longer, but he's still a plus defender. If Kidd plays off the ball and spots up on the weak side along with Brewer in the far corner, Kidd's legendary playmaking skills come into to play as he can exploit Brewer's cutting ability. Brewer works the baseline as well as any player in the league. That also comes into play if you're putting Anthony in the post, where he will draw frequent double teams.
Kidd is nearing 40 years of age and can't play big minutes, so playing him off the ball creates a bit of a dilemma because then you leave Pablo Prigioni to soak up the backup point guard minutes behind Felton. Prigioni, one of the oldest rookies in league history, showed his internationally famous playmaking in the preseason but struggled mightily to get shots off against NBA defenders. He's a drive-and-kick style of point guard however, and that would play well on a second unit that includes J.R. Smith and Steve Novak as spot-up shooters.
So by talking this through, we've created one possible path for Woodson to follow: A Felton-Kidd backcourt, with Brewer and Anthony up front and Chandler in the middle. When finishing games, you can flip Brewer and Smith around depending on which end of the floor you need to emphasis. According to SCHOENE, this grouping would outscore opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions. If used full time, the unit projects to rank 15th in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. Eventually, Shumpert will return and in that case, Brewer's role would likely be diminished.
That starting lineup still leaves Woodson with a workable reserve core. As mentioned, Prigioni would trigger the attack, with Smith and Novak working the perimeter. Marcus Camby would take Chandler's spot in the middle, giving you a consistent shot-blocking presence on the floor at all times. It's unlikely that Woodson would play five reserves together a great deal, so in this unit Anthony would probably play more of his traditional wing position. SCHOENE sees that lineup outscoring the opposition 3.4 points per 100 possessions, a nominal dip from the first five.
(No, Anthony can't play 48 minutes, though Woodson is going to have to ride him hard with Stoudemire out. The few minutes he rests would be soaked up by some combination of Chris Copeland and James White, and obviously there would be a drop off.)
Now for the "bad" edge of our double-sword. Eventually, you've got to work Stoudemire back into the mix. What if Anthony goes to the four position and the Knicks take off? What do you do with Amare then? Suggestions that New York isn't better off with the healthy version of Stoudemire around are kind of silly, even if he and Anthony have often had a difficult time meshing.
The solution is fairly obvious, though it would light up the sports talk portals all across Gotham: Bring Stoudemire off the bench. You've asked Anthony to alter his role, so why not do the same for Stoudemire? Remember, in this scenario, the Knicks are playing well and the notion of altering the existing rotation would be a touchy one.
Stoudemire could ideally serve both as Chandler's primary backup, and get plenty of run at four, which would allow Anthony to get some minutes at the three. In that role, Stoudemire would still be getting around 25 to 30 minutes which might not play well in the long run, but in the short term gives him more opportunities as the top offensive option and also saves wear and tear on that troublesome left knee. A second unit that features Stoudemire and Smith would be formidable.
All of this would involve a great deal more out-of-the-box thinking than Woodson has shown for most of his coaching career. If Stoudemire hadn't been injured, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. As it is, it would be less than shocking to see Woodson stick with a traditional rotation in which he tries to squeeze the last few drops of production from Rasheed Wallace's carcass.
Still, the cliche is that necessity is the mother of invention. A perfect example is what happened at the college level last season for the University of Missouri. After injuries and transfers depleted Frank Haith's big-man rotation, the first-year coach was forced to play a four-guard lineup all season. Suddenly, the Tigers became a nightmare matchup for opponents and went 30-5, rising to No. 3 in the national polls.
Woodson suddenly has a chance to distinguish himself in a way that he hasn't done before. By shifting Anthony to a new position and surrounding him with the right pieces, Woodson can leverage Stoudemire's absence as a way to sell his stars on a new paradigm. If Woodson is successful, the Knicks could end better than they would have been if not for Stoudemire's injury.
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A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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